Without knowing you, I know that there are some worriers on your caseload. I'm sure that you are regularly looking for engaging activities for anxiety that will help your students. That's probably how you wound up on this post. Well, dig in. This post has 6 key skills you want to cover in individual sessions with your favorite worrier.
To take charge of those pesky anxieties, students need to have the following skills:
- Be able to monitor and describe anxious feelings.
- Be able to use calming strategies.
- Be able to understand self-talk.
- Be able to spot anxious thinking/self-talk.
- Be able to challenge anxious self talk.
- Be able to set goals for improvement and rewards.
In the first sessions with students, it's best to do some psychoeducation on what anxiety is and talk about how they want counseling to help them with their worries.
1. Spot Anxious Feelings
To start, we want the student to be able to spot and describe anxious feelings. They can become detectives looking for clues about worry in themselves and in others. These activities should help them know what worry looks like and feels like.
- Label emotions in pictures or guess how someone would feel in a situation.
- Be a detective looking for clues. What is a person doing with their face and their body that shows they are worried?
- Have students label, on a person, where they physically feel anxiety (i.e., upset stomach, clenched jaw, tight muscles, racing heart).
When they can describe what worry looks like and feels like, you can then have them start to sort or rank how worried they are in different situations. Using a feelings thermometer, label it with different words for anxiety (i.e, concerned, uneasy, nervous, anxious, afraid, terrified).
2. Use Coping Strategies
Before we can dig into spotting and challenging negative thinking, students need to have some strategies to manage their anxious feelings. It is helpful to explain to the student that when you are anxious, your body often gets very tense. Before you can start doing any problem solving, you want to get rid of that tension.
Two strategies for that are deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. This video from GoZen is a great example of a muscle relaxation script.
You can dive deeper into coping skills if this is an area that the student needs more support with. Check out this post for getting students to develop a personal set of coping strategies.
3. Understand Self-Talk
Now your student can spot, describe and rank their nervous feelings. They are ready to find the worried thoughts that are feeding into those feelings.
First, help them recognize the normal, everyday thoughts that they have in situations that are low stress but not great. Like what do they think when they have a tunafish sandwich for lunch and they hate it or they forgot their homework.
Next, have them describe the range of thoughts people might have in situations that are a bit more unclear. Like what kinds of thoughts do people have on the first day of school? Being nervous on the first day of school is pretty typical. You can explore that some people are having thoughts that will help them handle nervous feelings and some people are having thoughts that will make those nervous feelings even bigger.
ACTIVITY: Give students a few situations where there might be a range of self-talk/thoughts (anxious, angry, coping, optimistic). Have them write down different thoughts that someone might have using a thought record.
4. Spot Anxious Self-Talk
Your student has spotted their anxious feelings, used a calming strategy like deep breathing, and could identify their self talk. Now, they need to see if that self-talk is growing or shrinking those anxious feelings.
Try the following steps
- Spot the Thoughts: What thoughts am I having now? What am I guessing will happen?
- Check the Facts: Do I know this will definitely happen? Will something else happen? Has this happened to me or anyone else before? Does it happen a lot?
Try also having them identify the kind of thinking errors they are making. Often, we make the same types of thinking errors again and again. Knowing the ones that you are likely to make will help you challenge them.
Check out these posts on identifying thinking errors for more detail.
Teaching Kids to Tame Negative Thinking
Size of the Problem: When Everything is a Big Deal
5. Challenge Anxious Self Talk
To help students challenge their anxious self-talk, they need to reframe it. There are two classic cognitive behavioral activities to help with this: probability overestimation and catastrophic thinking.
First, they need to determine how likely their thought is to happen. This is a helpful point to remind students that our thoughts are just guesses about the future. They aren't certain and are based on judgements we make. It is worth it to look closer and carefully at our guesses.
Second, they need to work through what if it did happen. They might be predicting accurately that something will happen, but might be off in how terrible it would be if it did. Have them explore what would happen if.
Activity: Use a Thought Record to go through estimating the likelihood and the consequences.
Check out this post on 9 positive thinking strategies to help students change their anxious self-talk.
6. Set Goals & Rewards
Changing your thinking patterns and handling anxious feelings is hard work. If you have gone through the first five steps, the student has built up the skills to start this hard work.
Now they have to put those skills into practice. For this stage, you want to set goals and also some ways to celebrate progress. Maybe they will successfully challenge anxious self talk or maybe they will use deep breathing when they notice a nervous feeling. Write down a progression of goals and have the student identifies opportunities to practice and how they will celebrate when they meet the goal.
Give these posts on Setting Goals with Students in Counseling and Measuring Progress in Individual Counseling a read for more information.
Make a Plan
Say hello to KICK Plans. KICK stands for four steps: Knowing I'm Nervous, Icky Thoughts, Calm Thoughts, Keep Practicing. In this 4-step process, students learn to recognize negative feelings and the negative thoughts that are influencing those feelings. Then they identify an alternative thought that would help them feel calm. Last, they keep practicing identifying alternative thoughts.
KICK Plans are ideal for counseling interventions for anxiety, but can easily be used by classroom teachers or parents.
In the moment, practice and role playing is essential for students who struggle with anxiety. They may have the individual skills to spot a worry or challenge some catastrophic thought, but they need opportunities to put it all together.
As mentioned above, identify opportunities for the student to practice their new skills. Role play those situations first. You can explain to the student that an actor on Broadway wouldn't just go out on opening night without first learning his lines and steps and practicing for months.
Download your KICK plan here and start building your counseling interventions for anxiety.